How We Conserve
Richard Todd’s wife wasn’t the same woman he had married by the time he was forty-seven. She was changed in so many small, and large, ways that he wasn’t sure what he lived with. The latest change was her sudden desire that they both save water—“No showers unless necessary, Richard. Think of the planet a little bit.” He was listening to her now, trying to wash her hair in the kitchen sink, cussing at the hose that wouldn’t stretch as far as she wanted it to.
“Richard!” she called out, voice breaking at the end of his name, “Help me, please.”
He cracked his knuckles as he stood and felt the various pops of age make themselves known. He had thought they were too old for this kind of change by now.
“Maybe if you’d just take a shower like a normal person this wouldn’t happen every other damn day.” He said as he leaned against the doorway.
Donna had suds trailing to her elbows, shirt shucked off to avoid soaking it. Her white cotton bra was almost sheer over her left breast, red nipple straining against the soft material, where water ran from her sopping hair, down her neck and chest, to the top of her pants. Her graying blonde curls were gathered in her fists, and she looked so aggravated Richard smiled before he could stop it.
“Stop standing over there like a fool and help me.” Her brows were drawn down and the wrinkle between them seemed deeper, more than last week. A trail of soap slid down her forehead and settled in the curves of her creases.
“Hurry up before it gets in my eye.”
Richard moved close to her and wiped the suds away with his thumb, smiling. “Lean over, sweetheart,” he said, still rubbing her skin, “let’s get you sorted out.”
He took the mass of her hair from her hands, his fingers brushing hers as her hands fell away, and began to let the warm water wash away the white that could disappear.
“I’ve always loved your hair.” He said in a low voice, not sure if she would be able to hear him, not sure if he wanted her to.
Donna said nothing and Richard let the moment stretch. He remembered the first time he saw her, her blonde curls had been piled on top of her hair in a bun, and she had a cigarette between her lips, shooting pool in a hazy bar.
Was it Rudy’s? He couldn’t remember, but he remembered her. She was pretty in a good-girl sort of way, which was why he talked to her in the first place. The surroundings didn’t match her look.
Leaned over the sink didn’t really seem to fit her either, but Donna still snuck a smoke after a few glasses of wine, so maybe he was wrong again.
She shifted, rubbing her bottom against him as she did, and he watched the small of her back dip. They hadn’t had sex in almost a year. He rested a hand along the crest of a hip and rubbed the soft skin with faded stretch marks.
“Don’t even think about it.” Donna said, spitting out water, still hidden by her wet hair.
Richard sighed and patted her side.
Donna surged up and hit Richard in the face with her hair as she turned.
“Why is it always about sex? Why does it always have to be about sex?”
Richard bit back a snap. He didn’t want to fight, and it seemed she did. Another one of the ways she had changed. Quick to anger, quick to fight, quick to tell him, “Well if that’s how you really feel then why don’t you just leave?”
“Here,” he said, moving towards his wife with his hands up, “You’ve still got some suds on your cheek.”
Donna wrung out her hair and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.
“No worries.” She said, grabbing her towel and wrapping it around her head. She left the kitchen and Richard stood there for a few moments.
There was a picture of their daughter, Deirdre, when she was six in the box beneath the TV stand. Donna threw her a birthday party at the zoo. She was standing on the railing of the seal enclosure looking too contemplative for her age. Dee had chocolate around her mouth, peeling off at the corners.
“Daddy,” she’d said, “The polar bear was green.”
He had laughed and told her it was something that happens when it’s too warm.
She’d just leaned her elbows against the railing and stared at the seals swimming around.
“You know everything.” She said a few minutes later.
Richard walked down the hallway towards their bedroom. When he got to the door he heard Donna’s rough exhale and the murmur of her chest as she let out an ugly cry. He rested his forehead against the door and grasped the handle. He wasn’t sure he would be welcome right now, and he didn’t know what he would say anyways. He opened his mouth and closed it, then his eyes, shoulders sagging.
He wiped his face and moved back towards the den.
He was trying to think of how to describe the dust particles to his wife later but he couldn’t think of anything other than dance, and he doubted she’d be very impressed with that. He wasn’t sure she’d care if he found a better way to describe it.
He grabbed his forehead and rested his elbows on his crossed legs.
They were over–– he knew this–– he just couldn’t figure out why. He had a feeling it had to do with Dee. Everyone knew, he thinks at least.
These things happen.
1 in 3, Richard. 1 in 3.
Just let her cry it out.
Give it time. Time heals all wounds. Even Donna’s.
I’ll pray for you both. Remember 1 Corinthians 10:13.
I know this is hard on you both, but you’ll get through.
No one knows why God works like this, just trust him.
You need to be strong for her.
How is Donna doing? Is she any better?
Is she eating? Tell her I’m bringing her by a casserole.
I haven’t seen you both in a while, are you two coping?
We missed Donna at Vegas Night, tell her we’re thinking of her.
Maybe you should go see someone.
Deirdre was a lovely girl, Richard. I know Donna is heartbroken.
You’ve lost some weight. It looks good.
Donna had all the sympathy cards lined up on the fireplace, hidden behind Christmas garland with big, perfect, red bows and one small lopsided one in the middle. Richard hasn’t taken it down. He’s not sure Donna could handle it. He isn’t sure.
Richard was frying pork chops when Donna finally came out of her room. Her hair was dry now, but he could see where her hands had been running through it while it was still wet. Her eyes weren’t puffy anymore, but they were still pink, like her nose and cheeks and lips. He looked away after that, at the electric green numbers on the stove. Three hours today, better than last week. The oil kept popping, and it was loud in their silence.
Donna’s voice broke the quiet. Richard nodded and flipped the cooking meat with a fork.
“I know you are, sweetheart.”
He knew she was standing in the doorway still, waiting for him to say something else. He didn’t know how to speak to her anymore. It was worse than when they were dating. At least then he’d been pretty certain that she liked him. He was pretty certain it wasn’t that anymore.
“Supper will be ready shortly.”
Donna came up and wrapped her arms around his waist, pushing her face into his t‑shirt. Richard could feel the push of her breasts against his back and clasped onto one of her arms. She was trembling and he could hear it in her breath.
“I love you.” She whispered as she turned her head, pressing her cheek to his shoulder blades.
Richard gripped her arm tighter for a moment and rubbed small circles inside her wrist. He cleared his throat and moved out of her embrace.
“I’m going to go check on the garden, check the fences. You know, deer have been getting all of our watermelons this year.”
He looked at her in their tiny kitchen, standing there in a nightgown with stains from a decade ago.
He moved forwards and pressed his lips to her forehead for a long moment.
Donna’s hands came up, one gripping his shoulder, the other in his hair.
Richard pulled her to his chest and kissed her forehead three more times, but didn’t move down.
“We can get through this, can’t we?”
He was just thinking that, and she said it. He didn’t know, maybe they could. He wasn’t going to answer.
Dee was in the garden with Richard, pulling weeds from around the small patch she declared was hers.
“Daddy, what’s Mom doing?” She had dirt covering her face, smudged into mud with the sweat on her face from the July sun.
Richard wiped his neck with his bandana and tucked it in the back of his pocket.
“Your mom has a headache, she’s inside taking a nap.”
Dee nodded and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand, hands coming to rest on her hips.
“I’m going to grow strawberries.”
Richard smiled and leaned against his shovel.
“That sounds like an excellent plan, can I give you some advice though?”
Dee tilted her head and pursed her lips. She stared at his face for a few seconds and then nodded slowly. Richard crouched down in front of her and pointed up.
“Strawberries like a lot of direct sun, and we’re in the middle of the woods.”
Dee rubbed her chin and Richard knew she didn’t really get it, visions of strawberry fields were still in her eyes.
“How about this, how about we plant some corn in the rest of the garden and talk more about it. What do you say?”
Dee looked towards her little plot and then back at him. She chewed her fingernail and nodded.
Richard handed her the seeds and watched her face scrunch up. The little red seeds weren’t what she was expecting. He laughed when she noticed her stained fingers and wiped them on her pants.
“Your mom is going to kill me.”
Dee grinned and dug another hole the depth of her first little finger.
“We have a pretty good garden, huh?” Dee said later, standing next to him in the carport, staring out across the yard to the garden.
Richard laid his arm across her shoulders and pulled her to his side.
“It’s not half bad.”
He stood in the middle of the garden, arms clasped behind his neck. The deer had gotten the watermelons. The rabbits ate all the collards. He closed his eyes and breathed in, out, in, out, in
“FUCK!” He threw his shovel into the empty watermelon vines.
He started pulling the empty vines out of the ground throwing them to the side, yelling every swear he knew, and “please” kept coming out but he wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Fuck.” He covered his face and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, hard.
“What are you doing out here?” Donna called out. She was standing on the carport, leaning against one of the poles on the edge.
Richard spit on the ground and wiped his eyes between his thumb and pointer.
“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. Damn deer just got all the watermelons this season.”
Donna stared at him for a while with her arms across her chest and head tilted. She looked so much like Dee he had the urge to hit something.
“Okay. Come inside soon, you look crazy and supper is getting cold.”
Richard laughed and clasped his hands across his neck again.
“Well, you knew that already. I married you after all.”
Donna flicked him her middle finger and turned to go back inside.
Richard leaned his head back and breathed in. Honeysuckle. Late wisteria. Magnolia.
Dee knew Magnolia’s were Donna’s favorite. She tried to pick one every year without letting it go brown.
She never did.
Richard walked inside and shucked his garden shoes off by the backdoor. The television was on in the den and Donna was perched on the edge of the couch, picking at her food and watching crime shows.
“It’s the brother.” He said, heading into the kitchen to fix his plate. The smell of fried pork fat was turning his stomach in a way that made his mouth water half an hour ago.
“You don’t even know what’s happening!” Donna called back from the other room.
Richard set his plate down and went to sit with his wife and her horrible television.
“You’re right about that, but it’s always the brother.”
Donna threw a pillow in his direction.
“You’re thinking of the butler.”
Richard shrugged, “Him too.”
They watched television for a while, and Donna made a few comments every now and then, but otherwise, they were quiet. Richard watched the way her fingers played with the clasp of her necklace and how stray pieces of hair were coming down from her bun.
Donna caught him staring and gave him a smile he hadn’t seen in nearly a year. He leaned toward her and grabbed her jaw with his hand, kissing her.
Donna pushed him away, and covered her face.
“God!” She cried, “It’s always about sex with you. Everything is sex!”
Richard held up his hands and stood up.
“You know, when you decide you remember what you want, let me know.”
Donna laughed, the sound gurgling in her chest.
“Real nice, Richard. Turn this back around on me.”
He didn’t have a response for that.
Dee was on the phone with Donna, yelling at her about some beach trip.
“I don’t see why you’re making a big deal about this! Hannah’s mom will be there. Dad already told me I could go.”
Richard glared at his daughter and she mouthed ‘sorry’ to him and rolled her eyes at the phone.
“Sure,” she said into the phone and handed it over to him, “here. Mom wants to talk to you.”
Donna began screaming about the news stories of girls going missing and every worst case scenario she could come up with.
“I know. I know. Yes, I know. Listen, she’s eighteen years old. She’s going to do what she wants.”
When he hung up the phone Dee was staring at him expectantly.
“Your mom says she needs to speak with Hannah’s mom, but you can go.”
Dee smiled and flung her arms around his neck.
“Thank you! Thank you! I have to go call Hannah!”
Richard shook his head and called out, “I need the internet in a little while so don’t stay on for too long.”
Dee yelled her okay from her bedroom.
“I’m going to go away for a few days.” Donna announced the next morning.
Richard stared at her and sipped his coffee.
“With the girls?” He finally asked. Donna nodded and pulled her bag’s strap higher up on her shoulder.
“I just,” she began and covered her mouth with her hand. “I just can’t deal with this house right now.”
You mean me, Richard wanted to say. Instead, he stood and moved towards her with his arms open.
She looked like she was about to object, but then moved to him.
He cradled her to his chest and kissed the top of her head.
“Make sure you take a real shower when you get to where you’re going.”
Donna hit him lightly in the stomach with the back of her hand.
“Jerk.” Her lips moved for a moment in a way that would have been a smile. “I’ll be back in a few days.”
She looked like wanted to say something else, but she didn’t.
When she was gone, Richard cracked his knuckles and got another cup of coffee. He watched the news, cleaned the kitchen, worked in the garden. He didn’t notice the difference.
When he came in from the garden he smelled like a man who hadn’t showered in a week. It was pretty close.
I can shower, he thought. I can take a shower.
He let the water go as hot as it could, until his skin was pink, and then red, and then he let it run over his hair and face. Donna would kill him.
He spit out a mouthful of water and soaped up his body. He grabbed a handful of conditioner and wrapped his fist around himself.
Donna was wrong. Everything wasn’t about sex, but some of it was. He leaned his head against his arm on the wall and tried to think about his wife. The only Donna he could picture that lingered in his mind was smoking in a shitty little pool hall. He came with a grunt, surprised.
He soaped up again and washed off, watching the water circle the drain. He almost wanted to stay in there even longer. His fingers had pruned now, though.
He pulled the towel around his waist and wiped his face with the hand towel Donna said was for decoration.
When he looked up he saw something on the window through the steam he hadn’t before. On the glass, in handwriting that made his intestines give a lurch, was a message from Dee.
<3 you mom and dad
It was fading. There were drips of condensation already erasing the heart.
Richard covered his face with his towel and sat on the edge of the toilet seat.
He could cover it with his own fingers if he wanted to. He could re-write the message. Theoretically, he could make it last forever.
Donna would never forgive him. This message is from Dee, from Dee’s fingers. It wouldn’t be the same.
Richard realizes he’s shaking his head and stops.
Those words will be gone by December.
Donna will be gone by December.
He’s not sure how he knows it, but Richard knows his wife well enough to know. She’ll take it as a sign.
He sat there for a while longer, until the drops on his skin went icy, then dried.
He turns the shower back on as hot as it will go when he can’t see ‘dad’ scrawled in her quick, playful swirls anymore.
The room fills with more steam and he watches as her little love note reappears.
Maybe, he lets out some kind of animal noise, maybe he should erase it.
Donna is gone. Donna will be gone. The message will be gone.
Dee was visiting for Christmas. Donna had gone all out in a way she hadn’t in years, since Dee had been small.
“Dee!” Donna yelled from the porch and ran to hug their daughter.
Dee had a bag strapped to her back and raised a tired hand in greeting to Richard while Donna squeezed her.
Richard gave her a hug when she finally walked up the porch steps.
“Merry Christmas, welcome home.”
Dee smiled and ran a hand through her hair.
“Ugh. Sorry. Airplane skin. I’m going to go take a shower. We’ll watch a movie after.”
“Sounds good. Go scrub up.”
Dee laughed, “God, I’ve missed this place.”
Donna had her arm around Richard’s back, leaning against his shoulder.
“It’s not half bad, I guess.”
He’s not sure he could handle it. He isn’t sure.
He sees a girl with a Marlboro hanging out one side of her mouth.
“What’s your name?” He asks, mesmerized by the blonde curls piled on top of her head. She’s wearing blood red lipstick that splits to reveal small white teeth.
“What’s it to you?”
Richard shrugs, “Don’t know yet.”
The girl laughs and puts out her cigarette.
Erin Armstrong is an MFA candidate at CU-Boulder. Her works are upcoming in or have been published in Haunted Waters Press, SmokeLong Quarterly, A‑Minor, and Banango Street.